While much of the developed world is talking about environmentally sustainable “green” technology, Africa is desperately seeking a green revolution of a different kind.
The original Green Revolution was a wave of new agricultural technology and government policies which are often credited with ending starvation in Asia in the second half of the 20th century.
Although more recently linked with pollution and disease from pesticides and other chemicals, its successes have been much discussed in recent news reports about hunger in Africa.
There is even an organization called The Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, seeking to build a continent that can feed itself.
In a recent op-ed article about the food crisis in Ethiopia, United Nations top relief official John Holmes wrote, “Africa, and Ethiopia, need a new Green Revolution — one that is agriculturally productive, economically profitable and environmentally sustainable.”
The great success story of a new green revolution in Africa — perhaps the only success story — has been Malawi.
Earlier this decade, the nation suffered six years of food shortages, but after instituting a government subsidies program that defied the IMF and World Bank, it has had enough food to export corn for the past two years.
In an interview with Kenyan newspaper The East African, Akinwumi Adesina, the chief of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, cited Malawi as proof that subsidies are needed to provide agricultural security.
“Taking governments out of agriculture was a big mistake,” he said.
Western agencies agree that African governments have a role in an African green revolution, but many stress the importance of industry to the project.
“The first (Green Revolution) was all the public sector,” Elsa Murano, president of Texas A&M University, told the Christian Science Monitor last week at a conference on global hunger. “The second has to add the private sector to it.”
And the private sector is eager to join in, because rising food prices and the downturn of financial markets have made agriculture in the developing world an attractive investment.
“Farmland is a new asset class,” Oscar Chemerinski, the director of global agribusiness for the World Bank agency International Finance Corp., told Reuters last month. “Suddenly you have many more investors interested in the sector.”
Even the former chief of Microsoft has got involved, as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced last month a huge public-private partnership designed to help bring poor farmers’ produce to market.
Describing the program, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Program, told the Washington Post, “This is a revolution in food aid, where food aid becomes a productive investment that not only feeds today but produces solutions for tomorrow.”
But there are questions about some of the methods used in places like Malawi.
The increased crop yields there are largely the result of using hybrid seeds and fertilizer sold by Western corporations.
As the BBC put it in one of a series of articles about the Malawi phenomenon, this raises the possibility of technological dependence.
That doesn’t seem to be bothering African farmers yet.
Dr. Jeffrey Luhanga, of Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture, told the BBC: “We hear this accusation from Western development workers. We are told ‘Why make farmers buy seeds every year? Why let the companies trap you?’ But this is based on a misunderstanding … The farmers can stick to their traditional ways. But the yields are not worth their sweat.”
In another article in the series, the BBC quoted one of the architects of the original Green Revolution, Norman Borlaug, as he lashed out at Westerners who would like to see fewer chemicals and less bioengineering in agriculture.
“If (environmentalists) lived for just one month among the misery of the developing world, as I have for 50 years, they’d be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals,” Borlaug said. “Responsible biotechnology is not the enemy. Starvation is.”
“Seeking Africa’s green revolution”
BBC, October 5, 2008
“New ‘Green Revolution’ needed to combat hunger in Africa, UN relief chief says”
UN News Service, October 1, 2008
“HOLMES: Food crisis in Africa”
Washington Times, September 30, 2008
“Africa: ‘Subsidies Will Solve Africa’s Food Crisis'”
The East African (Nairobi), via AllAfrica.com, October 5, 2008
“U.S. government seeks new solutions to combat global hunger crisis”
Christian Science Monitor, October 1, 2008
“Aid Plan Aims to Help Poor Farmers Reach Markets”
Washington Post, September 25, 2008
“World Bank’s IFC taps into green revolution”
Reuters Africa, September 19, 2008
“Dark Side of the Green Revolution”
Newsdesk.org, August 27, 2008